DES MOINES — The church vote proved stronger than a billionaire’s legion of angry fans Monday as Ted Cruz won the Iowa Republican caucuses.
Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas, relied upon strong evangelical support to defeat Donald Trump, the flamboyant New Yorker whose entire political persona is built on the idea he is a winner and not a loser.
In fact, Trump barely held on to his second-place finish in the face of a surge by Marco Rubio, a Florida senator who many believe is now in a good position to unify the establishment wing of the Republican Party behind his candidacy.
“It’s a nice, nice bump for Cruz and it certainly puts Trump in the position of being a loser not a winner,” said Dave Redlawsk, a political scientist at Rutgers University who studies the Iowa caucuses.
“But the real story may be Rubio. He did better than anticipated,” said Redlawsk. “It suggests a big move to Rubio at the end.”
The rest of the candidates in the 12-person Republican field essentially got trounced. The only other candidate who came close to double digits was retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
In his acceptance speech, Cruz took a subtle jab at the people who had come out in the final weeks of the campaign to try to torpedo his campaign in Iowa.
Most notably, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad had urged Iowans to reject Cruz because of his opposition to federal support for ethanol.
“Let me first of all say: To God be the glory,” Cruz said. “Tonight is a victory for the grass roots. Tonight is a victory for courageous conservatives across Iowa.”
He then added: “Iowa has sent notice that the Republican nominee and the next president of the United States will not be chosen by the media, will not be chosen by the Washington establishment (and) will not be chosen by lobbyists.”
For his part, Trump surprised many by toning down his East Coast bravado during his concession speech in Des Moines. He praised Iowa and said he was “honored” to finish second in the state. At one point, he joked that he may return and buy a farm.
However, Trump also tried to downplay the Iowa vote, saying he never had much of a chance of winning.
“I was told by everybody not to go to Iowa (after he jumped into the race). You could never even finish in the top 10,” Trump recalled. “But I said, ‘I have friends in Iowa, and I think they’ll really like me — let’s give it a shot.’ ”
Trump also vowed to continue the fight, predicting victory in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
For his part, Rubio appeared nearly giddy when he took the stage at his caucus-night party in Des Moines. Some people, said Rubio, had questioned whether a 44-year-old man of Cuban heritage who was raised in Florida could win in Iowa.
“They told me we had no chance because my hair wasn’t gray enough and my boots weren’t high enough,” said Rubio.
He also took the opportunity to make his pitch that he could be the unifier of the Republican Party.
“When I am your nominee, we are going to unify this party and we’re going to unify the conservative movement,” said Rubio. “We will grow our party.”
Rubio now heads with the rest of the GOP field to New Hampshire, where he will face competition from three governors who are also seeking the mainstream Republican vote: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
All three governors placed in the low single digits in Iowa, but they have put most of their resources into New Hampshire.
As for Cruz, time will tell whether an Iowa win will translate into the GOP nomination.
Cruz ran a traditional campaign in Iowa, building a strong organization across the state. He also heavily courted Iowa’s influential evangelical and tea party wings.
His strong position in Iowa became clear late last year when he won endorsements from U.S. Rep. Steve King of western Iowa and Bob Vander Plaats, the head of the Family Leader.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Cruz faced a flurry of opponents and criticism. There were questions whether the Canadian-born Cruz could legally run for president. (Legal experts have said he is eligible.)
Others, including former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, argued that Cruz was not well-liked in Congress and would be a divisive president.
Cruz’s win is clearly a “feather in his hat,” but it’s important to remember that the past two winners of the Iowa caucuses have failed to win the nomination, said David Caputo, a political scientist at Pace University in New York.
“Iowa is important, but it’s not as important as Iowans want to tell you, especially when you look at (Rick) Santorum and (Mike) Huckabee,” said Caputo.
Huckabee won in 2008; Santorum won in 2012.
One big question that emerged Monday is whether the steam has gone out of the Trump machine.
Trump leads in national polls and has a fervent base of followers. But he now has a loss on his political record, and questions may arise about the strength of his fan base and his ability to drive his voters to the polls.
It may also be difficult for Trump to maintain his standing in the polls as the field narrows. Only about 27 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Trump, which may make it difficult to expand his base into a majority, said Redlawsk.
“He’s not just polarizing, but his negatives are even high within his own party,” Redlawsk said. “How does he grow as other candidates drop out?”
One of the 12 Republicans in Monday’s caucuses has already dropped out: former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee, who ended his campaign shortly after the first results were announced.
Others are expected to follow.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1309, firstname.lastname@example.org